What the Health is a new movie available and getting a lot of attention because of claims like….eating one whole egg is like smoking 5 cigarettes. You can stream it on its website or Netflix. This movie covers so much ground—genetically modified foods, chemicals used in agriculture, climate change, mercury and PCBs in fish, drugs leaching into the water supply, pollution, and more. There are a few bright spots and, unfortunately, inaccuracies. Here is my take:
Credit where credit is due
This movie and it makers do seem to have a genuine concern that:
- Nutrition and its role in health does not get enough research or attention by health care providers.
- Food companies are not making food that is good for us.
- Companies create products that sell. Eating more whole foods with less packaging and processing will maintain or improve your health.
- Our planet suffers more if we eat meat and dairy.
- Green-house gas is associated with large animal farms and more water and crops are used to raise animals for human consumption than if we consume a plant-based diet.
- Eating the recommended portions of meat and dairy and shopping for smaller local food purveyors can reduce these issues.
- Health associations take money from food companies and have meat and dairy recipes on their websites.
- People can eat meat and dairy as part of an overall eating pattern and still be healthy.
- Portion size is key and the portions in the recipes are small by American diet standards. Granted, this is not always evident.
- Food companies market and lobby.
- Yes, they do. Their shareholders would likely protest if they did not because companies are in business to make money.
Where the rubber hits the road
- Incorrectly asserts that a vegan eating pattern is the only eating pattern that is healthy.
- Scientific evidence actually shows that the following diet patterns are associated with better health: Mediterranean-style, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), and Dietary Guidelines-related patterns.
- Going vegan may be right for some people, but you can still achieve better health by eating a lot of vegetables and fruits, nuts, whole grains, lean meat and fish, low-fat dairy, and olive oil as the primary fat.
- Mistakenly equates the risk of eating processed or cured meat with smoking cigarettes and plutonium exposure with regard to the risk of cancer.
- These do not have the same amount of risk of causing cancer. The strength of evidence to label them carcinogenic is equally convincing, but if you smoke, you are much higher cancer risk of cancer than if you eat processed meat. Eating a portion of processed meat occasionally is likely okay and different than eating processed meat daily.
- Irresponsibly tells the story of two individuals who changed to a vegan eating pattern and were reportedly able to stop their medications in 2 weeks.
- These may be real results and the approach may work for some people, but two people is not sufficient or convincing evidence.
- Imprecisely says that a poor diet causes heart disease, cancer, and other health concerns.
- Most nutrition research can show associations, but cannot establish cause and effect. Many things can contribute to health problems—bad genes, lack of physical activity, poor diet, stress, environmental exposure, and more.
- Is a diet low in vegetables and fruits associated with a higher risk of cancer? According to research, yes.
- Recklessly infers that removal of the thyroid is not needed for thyroid cancer and that changing to plant-based diet will cure this type of cancer.
- There is absolutely no research that supports this.
The chief science writer on Vox.com has a well written article covering the movie and more of its assertions.
One additional claim of the movie is that tobacco companies purposely sowed confusion about the research between smoking and cancer. They further claim that food companies and associations are doing the same with regard to nutrition research. Unfortunately, this movie had an opportunity, but in the end, does little to help reduce the confusion that exists about the diet, nutrition research, and health.
Happy and healthful eating,
Donna G. Pertel, MEd, RD, LDN
We have a new nutrition challenge coming this fall! If you are interested email me at